At a time when superheroes seem to have taken over the entertainment industry it’s worth revisiting the one without whom the superhero archetype as we know it today would not exist. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s character Superman is not the first superhero character to exist but he popularized the superhero genre and established DC Comics as a force in the comic book industry and very shortly afterwards the entertainment industry in general.
First an introduction to the character.
Superman was born on the planet Krypton under the name Kal-El. His father Jor-El, a scientist, foresaw a natural cataclysm that would blow up Krypton and with no time to build a rocket large enough for his entire family to escape, Jor-El and his wife Lara decided to send their son Kal-El to Earth alone to save his life.
This led a young Kal-El to two farmers named Jonathan and Martha Kent who lived on the countryside near the town of Smallville and raised him as their son under the adoptive name Clark Kent, which would forever be his human identity.
Clark’s superhuman abilities started developing while he grew up in Smallville, including super strength, super speed, super hearing, X-ray vision, heat vision, ice breath and the ability to fly. Thanks to the fact that Clark is exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, these abilities developed naturally. As a result, any time Clark comes near Kryptonite, a green crystalline material which originates from his home planet, his power weakens (although kryptonite comes in a variety of colors with different effects).
Jonathan and Martha Kent advised Clark to only use his powers for good and as a result, Clark developed the alter ego Superman and became a crime-fighting vigilante who regularly saves the people of Earth from danger.
As an adult, Superman resides in the city of Metropolis as a journalist for the Daily Planet under his human name Clark Kent while secretly fighting crime as Superman. He maintains a secret hideout located in the Arctic that is called the Fortress of Solitude where he keeps a laboratory and all his mementos, serving basically as Superman’s lair as well as a place of solace in times of despair.
Supporting characters include Daily Planet’s award-winning journalist and star reporter Lois Lane who eventually becomes Clark’s love interest, Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen and Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White.
This cast of characters would later include gossip columnist Cat Grant, political editorialist Ron Troupe, Clark’s childhood best friend Lana Lang, Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El who also hails from Krypton and goes by the superhero alter-ego Supergirl, and Krypto the Super Dog, Kal-El’s pet dog from Krypton who served as Jor-El’s early test subject for the rocket he would later use to send Kal-El to Earth. As well as the many other superheroes throughout the DC universe.
Superman’s most prominent archenemy is Lex Luthor. Originally depicted in the comics as a mad scientist but more often depicted now as an egomaniacal business magnate and CEO of Lexcorp, although every version of the character maintains that he has a high IQ. Lex Luthor sees Superman not only as a threat to humanity but also as an object of envy for his power and influence.
Other major enemies to Superman through the years include:
General Zod, a megalomaniacal military leader from Krypton.
Bizarro, a feeble-minded clone of Superman hailing from an alternate dimension.
Brainiac, a smart and powerful extraterrestrial android with abilities to match Superman’s own.
Toyman, a childish and mentally unstable toy maker.
Metallo, a cyborg with a kryptonite heart.
Parasite, an energy-absorbing man-turned-monster.
Mr. Mxyzptlk (Mix-yes-pit-lick), an imp from the Fifth Dimension with the ability to bend reality.
Lobo, a violent alien bounty hunter and mercenary.
And Darkseid, an alien dictator from the planet Apokolips.
There was also a series of comic books beginning in the late 1940s that depicted a character named Superboy who was simply a younger version of Superman. Although most of this part of Superman’s history was deemed non-canonical with the idea being that Superman did not become a superhero until he was an adult (elements that originated in this comic such as Clark’s childhood friend from Smallville Lana Lang would be maintained). A new character named Superboy who is Superman’s teenage clone was introduced in the nineties and he has since become affiliated with superhero teams like the Teen Titans and Young Justice.
The creators of Superman, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster first met in high school in Cleveland in 1932 and they had been writing, illustrating and self-publishing their own sci-fi stories long before working for DC Comics. In one of Siegel’s stories The Reign of the Superman (1933), Superman was an evil being with psychic abilities and far from the heroic figure he is now.
Siegel and Shuster shifted to making comic strips but were turned down because their adventure and comedy ideas did not stand out from the crowd enough. This led Siegel to revisit his sci-fi stories and turn his villainous Superman character into a heroic figure. This was also when Siegel came up with the idea to give him bullet-proof skin and super strength rather than psychic powers.
The Superman character had been pitched and rejected multiple times throughout the 1930s with various changes constantly made to the character and the concept, including him going from being a time traveller to being a space traveller.
In 1935, Siegel and Shuster found work with National Allied Publications, a New York comic magazine publisher owned by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson that published a couple of Siegel and Shuster’s stories in an issue of New Fun Comics that year. However the two creators held off on licensing Superman to National since Wheeler-Nicholson was proven to be an irresponsible and money-grubbing boss, so they continued to shop Superman around to newspaper syndicates while employed at National.
It was only after Wheeler-Nicholson formed a joint venture in 1936 with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz to form a comic publishing company called Detective Comics (DC) and lost co-ownership rights after being unable to pay off his debts that Siegel and Shuster took the offer from Liebowitz to produce comics for the anthology magazine Action Comics. Newspaper syndicates continually turned them down so they agreed to make comic books instead.
Siegel and Shuster were said to have been influenced by John Carter of Mars, Popeye, Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks (of Zorro and Robin Hood fame) and strongman Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) when creating the look and concept of the character, as well as Harold Lloyd for his mild-mannered alter-ego Clark Kent.
That first issue of Action Comics which was first published on April 18, 1938 was a huge hit thanks to the character of Superman who comic readers loved. Superman was the character who popularized the superhero genre (the word “superhero” is literally derived from his name) and his popularity led to the golden age of comic books that lasted throughout the 1940s and introduced Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Shazam, Robin, Joker, the Justice Society of America and the establishment of the DC Universe. But Superman is still the most popular of them all.
In addition to Action Comics, Superman has appeared in other comic book series including Superman (1939), Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (1954), The Adventures of Superman (1987), Superman: The Man of Steel (1991), Superman: The Man of Tomorrow (1995), All-Star Superman (2006) and a multitude of graphic novels, miniseries, one-shots, crossovers and alternate universe tales such as the critically acclaimed Superman: Red Son which depicts what the world would be like if Superman was raised in the Soviet Union instead of the United States. Many comics would also feature Superman in supporting roles for characters such as Batman and the Justice League.
The first time the character had ever been adapted from the page was on the radio show The Adventures of Superman which starred Bud Collyer and aired from 1940 to 1951.
His first screen adaptation came from Paramount when they released 17 animated shorts between 1941 and 1943 made my Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios, in which he was once again voiced by Bud Collyer. Superman would be adapted several more times in animation, including a series from Filmation called The New Adventures of Superman (1966-70), the Hanna-Barbera series Super Friends (1973-85) and a short-lived series simply called Superman (1988) from Ruby-Spears.
Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm had adapted their own version of the character for Kids’ WB hot off the success of Batman: The Animated Series and that show titled Superman: The Animated Series ran from 1996 to 2000 with Tim Daly voicing Superman, but that version of the character would later appear in Batman Beyond and as a regular on the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited (voiced by George Newbern).
And to this day Superman regularly appears in several straight-to-video comic book adaptations from Warner Bros. Animation.
The first live-action adaptation came with the 1948 movie serial in which he was played by Kirk Alyn. It was the most profitable movie serial in film history and it led to a sequel titled Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). That series was followed by the first ever feature film based on the character Superman and the Mole Men (1952) in which he was played by George Reeves, who would play the character regularly the following year in the syndicated television series Adventures of Superman (1952-58).
In 1966, the comic was adapted into a musical called It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman which featured music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) and lyrics by Lee Adams with a book by David Newman and Robert Benton. Superman was played by Bob Holiday in this play, which actually was nominated for a Tony!
The next time the character saw life on the big screen was in 1978 with the blockbuster hit Superman directed by Richard Donner featuring a memorable score by John Williams and a definitive performance from Christopher Reeve. This film was to superhero films what Action Comics # 1 was to superhero comics. It set the standard and it led to other popular films like Tim Burton’s Batman, as well as the sequels Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) and Superman Returns (2006) starring Brandon Routh. The character made a comeback in 2013 with Zack Snyder’s gritty reboot Man of Steel where he was played by Henry Cavill who also would reprise the role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017) as well as on HBO Max in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021).
The character has retained his popularity on television as well with the ABC series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97) where he was portrayed by Dean Cain, the teen-oriented Smallville (2001-11) which aired on The WB and The CW and starred Tom Welling as a young Clark Kent, and most recently he has been portrayed by Tyler Hoechlin in the CW shows Supergirl and Superman & Lois where he balances his life as a crime fighter with his life as a father to two teenage boys and a husband to Lois Lane.
Superman’s reputation as the ultimate arbiter for truth and justice has won him a lot of fans and also a lot of haters who call him a corny boy scout. There are those within the fictional DC universe who feel the same way and even go so far as to say that it is dangerous to let Superman’s immense power go unchecked when he could easily decide to turn evil at any moment. The wide variety of interpretations of the character has led to several interesting stories and portrayals of the character within the entertainment sphere. But I personally feel Superman’s original interpretation as a symbol of optimism, strength and fighting for good during the Depression and War years is still relevant today and was never corny. I actually think he is the perfect role model in cynical times. Far from out of touch, I see him as a symbol of hope in the face of the hopeless and there are a ton of possibilities for more Superman stories in the future that could benefit from this angle. As they have in the past when superheroes were still seen with wonder and envy instead of fear and suspicion.
By the way, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster eventually sold Superman to newspaper syndicates once the character became popular at DC. Talk about your symbols of optimism.